The focus of this chapter will be solely the music of the Ancient Valyrian Freehold and not any of the subsequent offshoots like the Ghiscari cities of Slaver’s Bay and the Free Cities of Essos. Unlike other civilizations long gone from Essos, the cultural impact of the Valyrian Freehold still resonates until today almost 400 years after the Doom of Valyria. Even though much has happened in these 400 years but there are plenty of records scattered throughout Essos to reconstruct the Valyrian musical system in detail. The information in this chapter comes from all corners of Essos, and for the sake of simplicity I will refrain from going into too much detail about where every little piece of evidence comes from, suffices to say that most of it comes from the antique and precious books I could get close to during my stay in Volantis. These are kept safe in the vaults of noble houses as proof of old lineages going back to the Valyrian Freehold. The noble merchants in possession of these books allowed me to spend a few hours with their heirloom only after having made a considerable contribution to their libraries helping their scribes transcribe old Andalosi legends. It took me more than 3 months of hard work to earn the privilege of spending just one evening with one of the books (and always under careful supervision). The book presented a challenge far larger that I had suspected as the old Valyrian tongue proved more difficult to understand than anything I had ever worked with at the citadel. Once dismissed from the Volantene palace I spent all night writing down as much as I could remember for fear it would leave my mind if I went to bed. With the light of dawn shining through my window I finished writing my notes with but one though in my head: Valyrian music must have sounded like dragons.
The entire system comes from one single concept: the interval of the fifth (fig. a). This interval, when ascending seems to recreate the roar of the dragons.
In order to create a musical scale where the 5th is always available from the root, the Valyrian created an ingenious system where all scales share a common frame. Once a root note has been chosen, the interval of a 5th is created from the root upwards or downwards a total of 3 times (fig. b).
To fill in the rest of the notes of the scale is yet again a simple process: each one of the 3 lowest notes in the framework can be used to stack either a major 3rd or a minor 3rd on top of itself (fig. c). The result is a stacking of six thirds with a row of perfect 5ths going from the lowest to the highest note . Once all 7 notes are present, they can be rearranged within one single octave (fig. d).
And yet it is not the elegance of the Valyrian system that has elevated it above all other musical systems, but its ease to combine notes sounding together (that, and the dragons of the Valyrian conquerors that spread the Valyrian freehold through Essos). The main feature of Valyrian music is the multiplicity of simultaneous notes that accompany the principal melody (usually a singer); a texture not seen in other system like the Rhoynish or the Qaathi, where melodies can stack upon one another simultaneously but never in such a rich and elegant way. What the Valyrian system lacks in flexibility it gains in harmonicity, as accompanying music is rather easy with the Valyrian harp. Its tuning is unlike any other harp from other parts of Essos and Westeros, as the Valyrian harp is not tuned to fit all the notes of a scale within one octave (fig. d), but rather, the notes are kept as they are found when the scale building process is finished (fig. c). The simplest of Valyrian harps consist of 10 strings (fig. e) where (counting from the bottom) the first, fourth, seventh, and tenth string are tuned by fifths following the scale construction aforementioned. These strings are played by the first and third fingers of the hands and their notes are present in all the scales the harp can play in. The remaining strings are grouped in pairs, tuned a minor and major third above the first, fourth, and seventh strings. These three pairs of strings (second and third, fifth and sixth, eighth and ninth) are mutually exclusive, so the distance between them is reduced to accommodate for the second and fourth finger to reach comfortably to play either of them. A very common feature of these simple harps is an extra string above the tenth string doubling the lowest note of the harp but two octaves above, as this is usually the root of the scales)
This compact style of harp with no more than 10 strings was favored by most Valyrians, and had straps that made it possible to carry them on dragon back while larger instruments were meant to remain firmly on the ground. Larger harps with an extended range were commonplace in any moderately wealthy household with harps with 16 strings could provided accompaniment in a total of 24 different scales, and harps with up to 22 strings allowed for transposition of the aforementioned 24 scales. But more important than size is the aspect of range, as Valyrian harps come in three varieties: low (fig. f), middle (fig. g), and high (fig. h) each one with its characteristic sound and eight playable scales.
A misconception of the accompaniment system of ranges is that the name reflects where in the register of the instrument the notes are played. This is simply a linguistic problem as in practice the low range tuning can be used in any instrument regardless of how high or low its notes sound. To use the low range as an example, the tuning is called the low range simply because the string used as a reference to tune the entire instrument is located at the highest possible position. With only three strings located higher in pitch than the reference string, most strings are tuned downwards from the reference string, giving the impression the range extends down, hence the name low range Valyrian harp.
The keen eye can discern that there are combinations of notes that yield the same scales in more than one range. This is another unique concept in Valyrian music, as scales can be created in more than one range, with even two scales playable in all three ranges (fig. i).
Nevertheless, the fact that all the notes necessary to play these two scales can be found in all three ranges doesn’t necessarily mean that can be considered equal. While in Westeros the notion of a linear arrange of notes within the octave is the traditional way of looking at a scale (fig. i), in Essos it is the position of the root that dictates the nature of the scale. Therefore, the same group of notes can have different names depending on whether it is found in the low range (fig. j), the middle range (fig. k), or the high range (fig. l).
Only when using an instrument with 16 strings and one reference string we see all three ranges placed respective to their names, with adjacent ranges sharing some of their strings the same way rooftiles overlap one another (fig. m). In these harps having the low range always at the bottom of the harp and the high range at the top is not problematic as the scales played in these ranges are suited to be disposed as such. The dark and ominous scales of the low range benefit from the lower register of the instrument as much as the bright and crisp scales of the high range benefit from the high register of the instrument.
Further development of this system of three ranges took place in the cities of Slaver’s Bay after the fall of Valyria in an attempt to regain cultural independence. We will cover the addition of the mid-low and the mid-high range tunings in the chapters dedicated to Astapor, Yunkai and Mereen. For now, all we need to know is that these intermediate ranges expanded considerably the range of scales possible from eight to sixteen scales, including some new scales never used before in the traditional 3 range tuning.